Although Sunday’s pro-Beijing march through the streets of Hong Kong resembled more of an all-inclusive sightseeing tour with transport, group leaders and a paid lunch provided for all, the demonstration was an outright show of strength from Beijing that could be the writing on the wall for Hong Kong’s hopes of true democracy.
The political drama that has played out in the ex-British colony over the summer months is nearing its critical juncture this coming week when the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPC) will meet in Beijing. The NPC will outline the guidelines for the 2017 election, which will determine whether Hong Kong will have the right to nominate its own candidates and elect its own leader.
As it stands, Beijing has permitted Hong Kong to hold elections to decide its own chief executive in 2017, a big step for the Communist Party of China (CPC). However, the kicker is that all candidates must be chosen by a nominating committee that is stacked in Beijing’s favour and can potentially allow the CPC decide who the candidates will be. In the opinion of Hong Kong democrats, this therefore renders the 2017 “democratic” elections meaningless, and backtracks on Beijing’s previous promise in 2007 to allow Hong Kong universal suffrage to elect their own chief executive in 2017.
The last few months have seen Hong Kong overrun with protests and counterprotests, the large majority of which have been peaceful but have inevitably polarized Hong Kong society. On July 1, the pro-democracy movement Occupy Central – which has combined all democratic parties, student groups and citizens – led a protest march through the streets of Hong Kong that was estimated by event organizers to have 510,000 participants. The Hong Kong police force later reduced that number to a mere 98,000. Then last Sunday, the pro-establishment movement called the Alliance for Peace and Democracy held a march which they estimated involved 193,000 protestors, which the police of course lowered to 118,000 and opposition groups lowered even further to 90,000.
These two marches have been the most notable protests from both sides, but Sunday’s march organizers have been exposed by Hong Kong media as coercing participants with the promise of free food, free transport and payments of up to $50 to make an appearance. Reports state that many were poor elderly farmers from outside Hong Kong, and a considerable number were Chinese mainlanders were filmed arriving in separate groups with team leaders directing their movements. This has lead to the conclusion that the demonstration was CPC sponsored.
“Although Sunday’s pro-Beijing march lacked credibility, it demonstrates the financial backing and the mobilisation power of the pro-Beijing groups,” said Joseph Cheng, a political-science professor at City University in Hong Kong and convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, a coalition of democratic parties supporting Occupy Central.
“It indicates that Beijing has made up its mind,” he added.
The significance of Sunday’s march made front page news in all China’s state media with the Global Times claiming, “Sunday’s protest by the patriotic forces laid bear the true public opinion of Hong Kong.” China Daily newspaper printed that the figure of 190,000 plus participants was accurate and that it will “prove significant when assessing the future political situation in the SAR (Special Administrative Region)”.
The Occupy Central movement has threatened that if Beijing fails to allow Hong Kong nominate its own candidates, they will hold mass protests to block traffic in the central business district in an attempt to paralyze Hong Kong’s financial operations. These threats of civil disobedience have alarmed the greater public who fear the consequences of destabilizing their economy and await to see whether the Occupy Central movement will follow through with their threat.
“I think it is unavoidable,” said Cheng when speaking of the protests that could occur in the financial district should Beijing not grant Hong Kong full democracy. “I will take part and demonstrate along with pro-democracy movement my commitment to democracy.”
Hong Kong newspaper The Guardian has reported this week that over 2,600 local police officers took part in a full-scale exercise on how to remove and disperse protestors. While Hong Kong police forces prepare for the possible frustration of protestors boiling over, which has not occurred to a great extent so far, there is the fear that if it becomes widespread China could intervene.
“Disorder that is too intense for the Hong Kong police to handle could justify deployment of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) to restore stability,” wrote Hong Kong-based risk consultancy, Steve Vickers and Associates, in a report stated by Reuters. Such a situation is unlikely, but it would be counterproductive to Hong Kong’s progression and autonomy.
What the next few weeks will bring in Hong Kong will depend on the decision of the NPC, which is expected on August 31. Whether the week ahead will ring in a new age of self-determination remains to be seen.
If the NPC does backtrack on its previous promise, it will unlikely be the end of Hong Kong’s push for democracy, with Chen stating that for the pro-democracy movement “this is a long term thing.”